How Krissi Campbell Fell for the Siren Song of Advertising
Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Krissi Campbell, adaptation writer at Sid Lee, is a constellation of reinvention, from the music business to photography to advertising. Getting outed at work, then becoming a diversity advocate. Learning a second language on the job. Showing up in her first career as a young upstart, and entering her newest one over 40. She's got a reinvention song for every move.
What were you before?
I was an intern at an international record label, BMG Canada. I interned in every department I could, from 17 to 23, all through university. Then they hired me to be their in-house graphic artist. I worked all the way up to my dream job, creative manager, A&R, where I was responsible for the visuals of our domestic roster. That meant finding the right photographers, graphic designers, stylists, makeup artists and video directors. Then I'd collaborate with artists and managers on the creative vision for new albums or singles.
It was an absolute blast. I made music videos with Wyclef Jean when he collaborated with one of our Montreal artists, Muzion, with Our Lady Peace, jacksoul, and my absolute favorite band, Sloan. I also got to take photos myself when artists would stop by the office for meetings or surprise performances. I got to shoot P!NK, OutKast, Foo Fighters, the Strokes, David Gray and others.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
I've had a few. When I was at the label, I was pretty closeted for the first few years. After a while, one of my colleagues outed me as queer. She claimed to be a spirit guide and told everyone at the bar after work that I liked boys and girls. I'm glad she outed me, and it was no big deal to my boys' club music-biz colleagues.
I later left my job at the label because I fell in love with one of my mentors, Anne, who lived and worked at the same label but in Montreal. I met her in the Toronto office when I was 18, and she had just been hired to work in Montreal. Like a typical '90s French woman, she walked out of the elevator all swagger, big eyebrows, red lipstick, smoking a cigarette!
It took Anne and me 10 years to get our lives together and figure it out … but once we decided to go for it, I had to make a big decision. It's funny because she's my wife now and she's always called herself a "déclencheur," which is a trigger in French—someone who pushes you to take the next step you're hesitant about. She's the one who told me to "take my place" when I was offered the big promotion to creative manager.
So I left my dream job, my family and the only city I've ever lived in to move to Montreal to be with Anne. She is a catalyst. She helped me fall in love with a new city and a new language, and really helped me navigate a few career moves.
What did the first steps look like?
I didn't speak French when I moved to Montreal, so I couldn't get a job in the music business here. I picked up a camera and went back to my roots. Since I came from music and did mostly portraiture in school, I started taking portraits of the Montreal music scene. I did album cover shoots, on-set music video stills; I got to go to Paris and shoot a band for Rock & Folk magazine. I was used to shooting film and playing with chemicals in a dark room.
When I started in Montreal, I had to teach myself digital photography: Learning on the fly again! It was exciting and scary, and I got the hang of it. Unfortunately, I wasn't making enough money. After a few years, I decided to explore the advertising world.
I got a job as a creative producer at Sid Lee. At the time, this was like being the creative team's mom. You knew everything about your creatives' lives, schedules and workload. You had to gain their trust so they'd tell you everything. It was a job with a huge English-speaking client, supporting a team of English-speaking creatives. Six weeks later, we lost the client. I thought to myself, "Oh well, I know I can get an agency job. I can be a part of a big company again. Maybe I'll just go back to my photo studio for a while."
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
Learning French on the job. After we lost the client, my boss at the time, Caroline, told me the company thought I was great and wanted to keep me. I was thrilled! The only catch was that I was going to have to do scheduling for the design team, and a lot of designers didn't speak a word of English.
Being an introvert, I was already pushing myself every time I talked to a creative to ask if they could take on more work. Having to do it in a language I couldn't speak very well was panic-inducing.
I am, however, very stubborn. If Caro thought I could do it, then I was going to do it. It was terrifying at times trying to make myself understood. How could these people really know and appreciate me if I couldn't be my full self? My full self is an English speaker: a funny, witty, confident anglophone.
But Sid Lee took a chance on me, allowing me to learn on the job. And as a creative person myself, I started doing translation and adaptation on the fly to help my team. I learned French so well that a freelancer I hired told me she couldn't believe I wasn't a francophone the first time I spoke English in front of her.
What was easier than you thought?
Being my authentic self. I never tried to hide my sexuality at Sid Lee. Once, in a meeting almost 10 years ago with all the creative producers, I had to give a quick lesson on gender diversity, sexuality and heteronormativity. I didn't bat an eye. I just tried to normalize. That's what I've continued to do. I was invited to speak on the company-wide International Women's Day panel, on the parent company (kyu's) Pride panel, and I'm super proud to be part of our office's DEI committee.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
You can be a successful creative and be over 40. Just because most of the people I work with are a lot younger doesn't mean my voice, opinion and skills are valued any less. I never imagined I'd be a writer after giving up my career as a visual creative. I adapted and persevered with an immense amount of encouragement from my wife and incredible colleagues.
Some colleagues made fun of my French in meetings at the start, but they were few and far between. Almost everyone was super supportive. I know I'm an anomaly, but it's a great feeling. I would never have the confidence or skills to move about the agency, between studio sessions and clients, without my experience in dealing with artists' egos and the pressure of the music business in the late '90s and 2000s. My experience made me a great fit in my actual job and at the agency.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
My first boss at Sid Lee, Caroline Ducharme, was a huge inspiration. She taught me all about how advertising agencies operate … in English. Her English was not great; we worked in an open concept office, and she talked so loud I'm sure they could hear her on the levels above us. She did not give a shit what she sounded like as long as she got the information across to me. She turned into a great friend. In the aftermath of losing the huge client, when she told me I was going to stay but had to speak French, she was definitely my inspiration.
My dad is also a big one. He learned the music business on the fly. He was a medium-deal rock star in Canada in the '70s, and left that behind to make money for his young family. He's 74 and still working in the music biz. He's worked with everyone and done almost everything you could do in the industry: running money to Jagger, making videos with Rod Stewart, passing Annie Lennox bottles of liquor through the closed doors of a stuck elevator, posing for mustachioed photos with Freddy Mercury, and taking Dave Matthews, Christina Aguilera and Foo Fighters on world tours.
Name an artist, he's connected to them somehow. (He's only met two of the four Beatles, though.) Now he works with young artists on songwriting and producing.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
I learned I can be who I am in two different languages at the same time. As an older queer woman, I have creative value and experience that enriches communications work. I am not afraid to be unabashedly myself; it makes my relationships with clients, colleagues and suppliers better. It also motivates me to work harder and find that twist that's going to be a little bit funnier.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
My wife still works in the music industry, and I miss it sometimes. I could never go back to working full-time there, though; we have little kids!
I'm glad I got to be part of it in my twenties, when I could go until 3 a.m. on a weeknight, shoot Jäger at the end of the night, and wake up the next morning for a photoshoot. In my mid-forties, I'm grateful for the experiences I had, but don't want to go back.
I went to my first rock show in three years a couple of weeks ago here in Montreal. It was amazing. The band is a Canadian supergroup called Anyway Gang, and my friend Chris from Sloan is in it. It was on a weeknight and I needed a couple of days to recover!
I truly love working at Sid Lee. I just celebrated my 10th anniversary here.
Tell us your reinvention song.
I have music in my bones. Choosing just one song is going to be hard. I sing with a feminist choir in Montreal called Choeur Maha. One reason I lasted so long as a freelance photographer with so much alone time, before working at Sid Lee, was the community I found in the choir.
When I started at the agency, I joined the in-house band, Sid Vicious. I'm not really a lead singer, as I love to blend in and sing with the choir, but with the band I got to take the lead on one song that first year. I was 12 weeks pregnant with my son, dressed all in black with studs everywhere, and I belted out Blondie's "Call Me" at the office party.
Total transformation. If they didn't know me before at Sid, they did now!
My advertising reinvention song is definitely "Call Me" by Blondie. My record business reinvention song is "Try to Make It" by Sloan. My portrait photographer reinvention song is definitely "Hyperballad" by Björk. My finally-I-get-to-be-a-writer at Sid Lee song is "Strange" by LP.
How would you define yourself now?
We recently did a DEI workshop where we were split into groups. One exercise involved our colleagues describing who they thought we were. Someone I admire told me she thought I was a badass woman. I love that. It was the best compliment. I am an introverted badass, older, queer writer. I do a lot of adaptation of concepts from French to English—taking campaigns written for the French Quebec market and making it work in English. There are lots of things that don't translate well, so you have to figure out the twist or work out something completely new. It's something I never thought I could get my brain to do, especially before I learned French.
I also get to adapt and make a lot of radio and TV ads that put me in the studio working with voice actors. Coming from the visual side of the music business, I never thought I'd spend days sitting beside a sound engineer, fiddling with Pro Tools files and directing talent in the booth! Sometimes I even get to go into the booth myself and do voiceovers.